I’ve had an exciting week!
Away from the day job you may have noticed that I write a little bit of archaeological fiction (if not please check some of the other pages on my website). Anyhow as part of promoting my fictional work I was invited to Bracknell Library to give an informal talk about myself, my books and of course my first love, archaeology.
Now I hate talking in front of people, I mean really hate. I am a very introverted person, to the point that sometimes it takes a beer or two for me to talk to friends. But apparently once I get going I’m pretty good (you may have seen some of my short videos – admittedly some come across better than others, such is the nature of live shows).
So, I went along, all nervous with some books and a few archaeological bits and pieces that I managed to scrape together, and I had a great time!
Sure, it was only a small crowd, but for me that was perfect for my first time. I introduced myself, almost spilling water everywhere in the process, my hands were shaking so much, then I went with what I’m good at. Explaining archaeology and what I do. Once I get going I can talk for hours about archaeology, sometimes it’s hard to stop me, which meant that I did have to remind myself that I was technically there to talk about books. I spoke for about 15 mins on my background, first dig, inspiration for my Archaeological Adventures series, a little about the books and then back to the archaeology and the day job again before throwing the floor open to questions and a more informal discussion.
This was fantastic, the shakes totally gone now I was able to field questions about how we know where to dig, and where archaeology lies in the development process. I could talk about my books and their modern setting with teenage characters, and Indiana Jones style adventures with fantasy elements. We chatted about how much more difficult it was to write a sequel than a first book as other people now know your characters and whilst they have to be recognisably the same in the second book, they also have to have been affected or changed slightly by the events of the first book.
The inevitable question about my favourite site I always receive with good humour because I genuinely do have a favourite site and it’s not what people might expect so I love seeing people’s reaction. It genuinely demonstrates how strange archaeologists really are. My favourite site was a medieval toilet that I dug in Salisbury. Yep you read that right a toilet. It was wonderful, we uncovered a backyard plot with a burgage wall (boundary between properties) and a number of cess pits. At one end of the site was a chalk structure which made two small chambers, both of which were filled with a greenish brown, somewhat smelly deposit (oh yeah cess pits smell – not badly, not like gross human waste smell, just like heavy organic compost). And cess pits are great, why? Because let’s face it the medieval indoor loo was somewhat like one of those blue tardis portaloo’s you get on sites and at festivals, but ultimately less pleasant. So, if you drop your money, brooch, shoe, hairpin, down there, you ain’t going looking for it, which means cess pits are where we find stuff. If we sample the material itself, pass it through a sieve and really look at it we can see what people were eating too, but what we found in that cess pit was great, bits of preserved leather, coins and a really nice, (very precious in the medieval times) pilgrim badge from the shrine of Thomas Becket.
When we analysed the other smaller cess pits on the site too, what we discovered is that for a long while people used to just dig a hole in their yard, do their business and backfill it again on a regular basis (yuck, unhygienic), then they constructed the chalk outhouse and used that, for about a century, give or take, then as indoor toilets were considered unhygienic, people went right back to digging holes in the garden. It wasn’t until flushing toilets were invented that people gradually went back to having indoor toilets. (Extra fact for you Queen Elizabeth I had one of the first flushing toilets).
Anyway, back to the library, I had a few archaeological bits and bobs to pass around including three pieces of the famous red Roman Samian Ware, two coins of the third century Gallic Emperor Tetricus, a medieval beehive thimble, replica barbed and tanged arrowhead and several clay pipes, or as archaeologists call them, post-medieval cigarette butts. These were received with interest and passed around the group, but the find that generated the most interest was an odd rock. I found it in Palaeolithic layers on a site somewhere around Sonning, excavating a pool for someone, and it appears to be a fossilised slug. So not of any archaeological interest, hence I was able to keep it. It was passed around the group who all took a turn to examine it and unanimously agreed that rock or not it has all the attributes of a slug, except for the slime, check the picture below - it doesn’t photograph well but I assure you it looks like a slug.
So, to sum up I had a wonderful time at the library, and I even met two more local authors David Barker and Anjana Chowdhury. Along with Bracknell Library we are looking at doing a local literary festival later in the year and I’m very excited about the idea of doing more things like this so watch this space!
S. M. Porter
Professional archaeologist and author, S. M. Porter loves history, adventure and digging in the mud. Her career is in ruins - just where she wanted it to be.